In Walt Whitman’s poem Leaves of Grass, first published in 1855, the poet explores themes of the idea of the self, the recognition of self in relation to other people and the poet’s connection nature and the universe. For example, Whitman’s use of tangible objects such as the houses and the rooms symbolize the society. Another example is his use the perfume which embodies the self of one being; lastly, he use the atmosphere to describe the entire self.
For Whitman, the self is regarded as mystical and remains constant throughout life. The self includes thoughts, experiences, conscious and subconscious states, and the individual’s spirituality. The theory of self is important in Whitman’s work because it is where his intellect and art is reflected.
Walt Whitman sees the self as an individual and also as nature or the entire universe. The poet wants to preserve his own self while fusing with the entire universe. This means that the poet recognizes his need to associate with others and to commune with God. His reference to sex is a metaphor for spiritual experience. The poet’s pleasure stems both from the physical and the spiritual.
Whitman demonstrates his individualistic style in “Song of Myself”. I consider it as one of the greatest poems I’ve read. His experiment with words is just breath taking. As one reads through his verses, one is lost in trance through his vivid imagery.
The poem opens with the celebration of the self. The poet rejoices with the experience of communing with the universe as described in Section I lines 1-9:
“I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death”.
In section 2 of the poem, Walt Whitman asserts his independence from society and at the same time declaring his connection with nature. “Houses and rooms are full of perfume”, as stated in line 1 of section 2; the perfume is a representation of the individual selves and the atmosphere denotes the universe. The poet is enticed to be with the other selves but he wants to keep his freedom and independence.
The poet delights in experiencing all of his five senses. His use of his sight, his hearing, his taste, his smell and his touch gives him an intoxicating pleasure. Sections 3 and 4 of the poem, the poet reproaches the “talkers”, the “trippers” and the “askers” for discussing things that is of shallow importance.
Whitman describes his spiritual communion with God in section 5 of the poem by stating,
“And I know that the promise of God is the promise of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own”…
In section 6 of the poem, a child asks the poet “What is the grass?” The poet stops and thinks and finally explains that the “grass” is a metaphor for life and death. The grass grows and eventually dries up and dies. In section 7 of the poem, the poet describes his universal nature. The universal self discovers that he is surrounded by everything good and he is a part of them. In sections 8-16, the poet depicts everything he encounters, genders, all young and old alike, people from different places. He is drawn to them and he considers himself as one of them. The poet acknowledges his similarity with mankind as illustrated by section 17.
The poet addresses the entire humanity from section 18-19. In sections 20-25, Whitman expresses his divine experience by the fusion of the physical reality and universal reality. The poet listens to everything around him as depicted in Section 26. The poet is amazed by the sense of touch and what joy it brings to him as it is described in section 27-30 where he asks “Is this then a touch? Quivering me to a new identity”. The poet believes that all small things are essential. He cites that “a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars”, as portrayed in sections 31-33. The poet makes reference to every person in existence and the ones who died; he also gives an account of his experiences in the history of America (Section 34-36).
He further explains in sections 37-38 that through his connection to all things dead and living, he feels empowered by the experience. Sections 39-41 states that the poet is transformed to a hero that he would save people from falling he would stop “the descending man from and raise him with resistless will…/By God you shall not go down! hang your whole weight upon me”. In section 41, the poet accepts religion as universal. He believes that all men are divine. Whitman sees the inequality, injustice and corruption in society as described by section 42.
The poet embraces all religion as explained in section 43. The idea of death and eternity is expressed in sections 44-49. He explains that everything will eventually unite with God in the end. Whitman feels that there is something greater than death and yet he could not explain it as cited on section 50 of the poem. Finally, in sections 51-52, the poet bids farewell “The past and present wilt—I have fill’d them, emptied them, /And proceed to fill my next fold of the future…Missing me one place search another, /I stop somewhere waiting for you.”
Walt Whitman believed that the poet has a role of exposing the truth by using his poems. The use of metaphors not only enhances the reader’s imagination but also becomes an eye opener. It makes a person stop and think. It creates a sort of awakening of the senses that may not be seen, heard or felt before.
Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself”. Leaves of Grass. New York: Bantam Books, 1998.